OMAHA — Every time the waiter comes to your table at the elegant, laid-back The Grey Plume, he’ll tell your party about yet another item that the kitchen has produced: the butter churned in-house, the ricotta-style buttermilk cheese made here, the prosciutto cured for up to 24 months, the sourdough rye baked in the kitchen.
In most cities these days, “locavore” references are worn like badges of honor. But in Nebraska, where farms and ranches occupy 93 percent of the land, “locavore” may as well be axiomatic. There’s far more to the Cornhusker State’s ecosystem than corn and hogs.
Clayton Chapman has become something of a brand steward for Omaha’s bounty, artists, and green designers. After a stint at the highly acclaimed Tru in Chicago and travels through Europe, the native son opted to return home to open The Grey Plume in 2010. Since then, accolades have poured in, including two James Beard nominations for Rising Star Chef.
Butchering, curing, churning, and canning is broadcast to diners, as witnessed by the waiter’s constant plugs for everything homemade. What’s less obvious is that Chapman, 27, puts the same care and respect into the physical building. The restaurant’s energy management system is designed to run on kitchen heat and its exhaust output; dining room floors were assembled from barn wood; the kitchen has no walk-in fridge because deliveries arrive daily, and whole animals are butchered and cooked right away. The kitchen has small fridges for short-term storage for cream and butter.
The resourcefulness and wholesomeness are evident in other ways. One hundred fifty bread plates were made from 1,500 wine bottles by local artist Ed Fennel. Details like this helped earn The Grey Plume the distinction of greenest, most sustainable restaurant in the United States from the Green Restaurant Association.
The chef-owner has a lot on his plate, so to speak. “Life is fast-paced. It has to be in order to get everything accomplished in a day,” says Chapman, who has a farmboy charm. He grew up in the city until high school, when his family moved to 4 acres of farmland, and gardening became part of the daily routine. “Having a connection to the land and knowing what you’re eating takes you back to core values, to the bare necessities in a world fast-paced, technology driven. It’s the small things that make you able to enjoy and appreciate eating at a level that’s fun to share with others.”
The high-ceilinged dining room is sparse but warm. There’s a coziness that belies the menu’s extravagance. And you get the feeling they want it that way. It suits the unaffected playfulness of the waiter when he swings by to deliver the entrees. “All the pin bones have been removed, the spine’s intact,” he says of day-boat halibut, which Chapman procures through Sea to Table, a national program that provides restaurants with sustainable seafood. The fish arrives with seasonal sides, like a medley of fava beans, smoked blood orange, and black trumpet mushrooms. “You can fillet it along the side — either side. Or you could also just dig in, really. There’s no wrong way to eat it. The cheeks are like little pearls of delicious. So, who’s gonna be the first stabber?”
There’s a haiku-like charm in the succinct descriptions of each plate. Consider agnolotti with fiddleheads, celery root, pixie tangerine, Dutch Girl Creamery Lady Jane, a French-style, ripe goat cheese made in Lincoln, Neb.; Waygu beef, pastrami, potato, maitake mushroom, Thumbelina carrots. It’s pleasantly disorienting to eat here knowing that you’re in a state synonymous with steak.
Grey Plume takes its first name from Chapman’s son’s middle name; plume is a reference to “a feather in wing and dream taking flight,” he explains.
That dream will reach new heights in the spring, when he opens The Grey Plume Provision across from the restaurant, which will sell products prepared in the restaurant kitchen, from marmalades and preserves to house-roasted coffees. And there will be an online store, giving the nation a chance to sample Nebraska’s bounty.
The Grey Plume
220 S. 31st Ave., Omaha. 402-763-4447,